When was the last time you realized a major moment in your life was happening while you were in the middle of it? I don’t just mean the end or beginning of a chapter in your life – graduations, weddings, births – those kinds of things. Yes, those are major moments, but usually we can see them coming and plan for them. No, I mean, did you realize that you were meeting your life long best friend the moment you shook hands? Did fireworks go off when you discovered your greatest passion? When you learned a lesson that, even today, continues to serve as a guide for your life, did you have a eureka moment?
Usually, it’s only when I have the opportunity to look back that I have the ability to see those moments for what they were. Seemingly innocuous minutes became essential components of who I am and how I understand my life. This is true for most of our lives. Learning a skill that we’re going to use for the rest of our lives, or having a conversation with a mentor, or even creating a family ritual doesn’t usually come with a bright neon sign saying “Look at me! Notice me! I’m important!”
The same is true for the foundational moments of our Jewish identity. The Torah stories that we are constantly coming back to – the stories of Eden, of the patriarchs and matriarchs, of both wonderful and horrible examples of humanity – aren’t written in bold, or in a different color ink. Instead, when you skim through the Torah scroll, through the beginnings of our communal history, it is all too easy not to notice these stories at all. Like any typical Tuesday, stories and moments that make us who we are, are all too easy to miss unless we go looking for them.
Thankfully, not every monumental moment is like that.
This week and next week, the Torah does jump out and scream “Look at me! Notice me!” But instead of putting glitter or highlighter on the fragile parchment, it changes the pattern of the text. Instead of being perfectly regular paragraphs and columns, this week’s Song at the Sea and next week’s Ten Commandments, are spaced out differently. (See: Song at the Sea and Ten Commandments) Their liberal use of blank space and unexpected change in style scream “These aren’t ordinary moments! Don’t rush through them! Read them carefully!” Our people’s song of freedom and the laws on which we have founded ourselves upon are key, even now, thousands of years later.
In my rabbinic thesis, I called moments like these Temporal Anchors. Not only because they keep pulling us back in time, encouraging us to relive and remember the amazing periods of our story. But, because they serve as a consistent point of stability even when our narrative feels shaky under our feet. Temporal Anchors give us a frame of reference, they divide our lives into “befores” and “afters” (Before and after freedom, before and after receiving the law), and serve as a way to make sense of an uncertain present and unknown futures.
As Jews, our anchors are eternal reminders of who we are and what we believe as a People. As individuals, our anchors are life-long memories that create character, personality, passion, and strength. Whether we realize it or not, our anchors help us make decisions, chase our dreams, and understand our mistakes.
We don’t always recognize our anchors when they first catch on a moment. It’s all too easy to miss them in the hubbub of life. But every once in a while, if you’re looking for them, you notice a shift in the pattern of the everyday, a transformation in the way you think or see the world, a subtle change in the way you understand yourself and who you want to be. That is the kind of moment that makes a difference. That is the kind of story we tell this week.